‘Turns’ in eighteenth-century British history

Matthew McCormack gave this paper at the ‘Eighteenth Century Now’ conference at University College London on 26 April 2019. This conference was held to mark the 30th anniversary of the ‘British History in the Long Eighteenth Century’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, and was intended to reflect on the state of the field.

Today I am going to talk about methodological turns. In order to do this, I am going to take an autobiographical approach, reflecting on my own work in eighteenth-century studies. This may sound self-indulgent, but the journey that I have been on over the last quarter century is probably similar to many other scholars in this field.

I emerged from a History degree at York with an interest in nineteenth-century political culture. I chose to go to Manchester to do my postgraduate studies, because of the work on elections by Frank O’Gorman and James Vernon. It was Frank who turned me into an eighteenth-century historian, but it was the developments in the department in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British studies that impacted on my method as a historian.

Manchester in the 1990s was one of the few departments in Britain where postmodern ideas really took hold, and was probably the leading promoter of the linguistic turn. It was invigorating for me as a postgrad to be based in a department where history was so politicised and where methodology was taken so seriously. This very directly impacted on my work. Whereas I started out doing a fairly standard history of electoral culture, I soon switched to thinking about how the electoral citizen came to be defined. Working backwards from when this was codified in the 1832 Reform Act, I thought about how citizenship was talked about and lived, particularly in terms of masculinity.

My thesis became my 2005 book, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England. This book was an early attempt to link the histories of masculinity and politics – and this is a link that I have tried to develop ever since – but its methodology was linguistic.

After Independent Man, I tried to repeat the trick by historicising other keywords that were significant in the history of masculinity and politics, but with rather less success. In common with a lot of work on the linguistic turn, my contention that historians had used terms anachronistically was a good one, but I was less successful at proposing what they should do with them.

Part of the problem was that, by the mid-00s, I had access to ECCO and online newspapers, which quickly generated thousands of hits that I did not know what to do with. For Independent Man I had spent months poring over Hansard, so had a good sense of context and intention of my source material. Digitisation made the linguistic turn very easy, but for the same reason I wonder if it helped to kill it off. Indeed, around this time there was a reaction against the cultural turn. Many historians expressed anxiety that the focus on representations was losing sight of human experience; some argued for a re-engagement with the ethos of social history.

Instead, I found a way forward from an unexpected source: the history of war. Historians often assume that military history is methodologically conservative, but it is a very practical field, concerned with physical and material questions. Even if you are doing the cultural history of war, you can’t get away with the kind of abstractions that are acceptable in other fields.

During my PhD I had come across the debates about the militia in the eighteenth century, which used highly gendered and nationalistic language to talk about the citizen soldier, and which resulted in the Militia Act of 1757. I wrote two articles about this and moved on to other projects. But I kept coming back to the militia and in particular the question of what it was like for the men who actually served in it. It had been relatively straightforward to reconstruct the role of masculinity in the way the militia had been represented, but in order to think about masculinity in terms of experience I had to ask different questions and use very different source types. This led to a series of studies on questions such as embodiment, space and material culture. Eventually I had enough of these for a book, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England (2015). This was a typical mid-career book, produced on the installment plan.

The structure of the book reflected its gestation, with the first half on representation and the second on practice. I could justify this structure, as debates around the militia (both at the time and among its historians) revolved around ideal and reality. Whereas most historians argued that these were completely at odds, this method allowed me to show that the ideal of the masculine citizen soldier was projected onto the practice of the institution itself. That said, I was conscious at the time that it was a bit of a fudge. Separating representation and practice is artificial, and I did not use it as an opportunity to explore the relationship between them.

I only really engaged fully with the material turn since I have been working on shoes. This was partly a development of my work on military uniforms and the masculine body. It was also a consequence of being at Northampton: I had to work on shoes eventually. The national shoe and leather collections were on my doorstep, so accessing the objects (one of the practical obstacles in the way of doing material culture history) was relatively straightforward. Indeed, building up relationships with museums (which you have to do to carry out this kind of work) has been a rewarding spinoff for me.

Previously, I had struggled with material culture. I had struggled to ask the right questions of the objects, or to get any usable answers from them. But the shoe is a very eloquent object. Shoe styles are often very striking and revealing, and the materiality of the object is key to its purpose and meaning. Shoes are also very personal objects, as they mould to the foot of the wearer and therefore provide a unique source about them. They retain traces of the wearer’s body, and impacted on that body itself, in terms of its posture, movement and health. I have therefore found men’s shoes to be a hugely revealing source about masculinity. It allowed me to think about the embodiment, the national identity and the class distinction of the public man – which takes me back to politics, where I started.

In conclusion, my third book is out this summer. It’s a textbook on Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 (which is very ‘long eighteenth century’). Whereas my previous books had compartmentalised the linguistic and the material turns, this one doesn’t. Perhaps this suggests that the approaches that come under the umbrella of the ‘cultural turn’ need not be opposed to one another.

Matthew McCormack

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